Camera bill runs out of footage

A failed attempt to limit the recording of police activity

Kevin Niederman

A bill from Texas proposing limitations on the filming of police activity was dropped last week. The bill sought to create a buffer area around working police officers by charging citizens who filmed police within twenty-five feet of police activity with a misdemeanor. The halo would have been increased to one hundred feet if the person filming was armed with a firearm. The bill’s author and Texas state representative, Jason Villalba, has been hesitant on revealing his reasons for dropping it.

At first glance, many seem to believe that Villalba caved after the increasing pressures created by the slew of highly publicized killings perpetrated by on duty police officers, such as the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The most recent of these killings, the death of Walter Scott at the hands of South Carolina police officer Michael T. Slager, was caught on camera by a passerby. Villalba was quick to point out, however, that the footage of that killing was shot over fifty feet away from the incident, and, under his bill, the camera man could have gotten much closer should he have wanted. Some feel the clouded wording in the bill might cause more trouble than it would fix.

“It’s very disturbing that you would have an arbitrary and significant buffer zone that would absolutely apply regardless of the circumstances,” says William Jacobson, a professor at Cornell University Law School. “The mere act of videotaping cannot be deemed an obstruction. This [bill] is an attempt to prevent people from videotaping police and that you can’t just arbitrarily do. [The police] may subjectively feel that the spotlight on them does inhibit their ability to act, but that subjective feeling cannot trump the First Amendment.”

Villalba has said many times that he wrote the bill as a sort of safety measure, to keep police and civilians alike safe. Regardless, opposition to the bill formed almost immediately and came from all sides of the political spectrum. Jonathon Strikland, a fellow representative, regarded the bill as “one of the most anti-liberty, anti-transparency, anti-free speech, big government, police-state promoting pieces of legislation I have ever read." Strikland was not alone in feeling this way.

"We've received a number of threats," said Villalba. Villalba and his family have been under a security detail for over a month after receiving several death threats through texts and social media. "The nature of the threat would be something to the effect of, 'If you pass this bill I will shoot you.' I mean, it's as simple as that, now they didn't use those words, but, 'you're going to die if you continue on this path.'"

As of yet, it is unknown if threats have waned since the dropping of the bill.

Kevin is a sophomore pursuing general studies.